Jesus Loves a Rich Man
by Louise Westfall
Does Jesus hate rich people?
That’s a proposition you might conclude from nosing around in the New Testament, where Jesus is always lifting up the poor as truly spiritual and blessed, and criticizing wealthy folk for their lack of concern and assistance to those in need.
But wait! Aren’t material blessings considered a sign of God’s approval, a reward for faithfulness and hard work? Praise God from whom all blessings flow!–and at least some of those blessings are financial.
Today’s text describes an intriguing encounter between Jesus and a person we discover to be one of the “haves.” Notice as we read it that the conversation about money that flows from it is initiated not by Jesus, but by a man who approaches him respectfully to ask a very spiritual question. A reading from the gospel of Mark, in the tenth chapter, reading verses 17-27. Listen for God’s Word to the Beloved Community: including rich and poor…and you and me. [MARK 10:17-27]
This encounter must have made a great impression on those who followed Jesus: versions of it can be read in Matthew and Luke. And they’re all similar. A person of great wealth seeks Jesus out for guidance and advice about inheriting eternal life. First, let’s be clear about what he was asking. Since there was no concept of an afterlife in ancient Judaism, this is not “how can I get into heaven?” Instead the man wonders what he’s missing and how he might get it. To “inherit” you have to belong, so maybe he’s inquiring about how he could become part of the Kin-dom Jesus was always talking about. Jesus responds with a partial list of the commandments–curiously, just the ones concerning human relationships. The man quickly assures him that he’s followed these his whole life. And he’s probably right! He’s been a law-abiding, commandment-keeping person. But apparently it hasn’t been enough. He’s looking for something more.
Instead, Jesus suggests he consider something less: sell everything he has and give the money to the poor. And then with an overflowing bank account in heaven, to come and follow Jesus.
Preposterous! No way! That can’t be right! And the man goes away, bitterly disappointed, because he had a lot of stuff.
Jesus’ comment to his disciples about the difficulty of wealthy people entering the Kin-dom of God simply perplexes them. What? Their assumption was that this righteous man had been triply blessed by God with material gifts, and here Jesus was talking about it as a roadblock! He even used a ridiculously exaggerated illustration of it being more difficult than for a camel to thread the eye of a needle. Really?
Maybe you have heard the story of a guy who was giving a witness during his church’s stewardship campaign. I am a millionaire, he began, and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I remember the turning point in my faith. I had just cashed my very first paycheck and had gone to Bible study. The speaker was a missionary who told about his compelling work and the great need that remained. So at that moment I decided to give all the money I had to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and made me a wealthy man.
He finished and there was hushed silence as he returned to his seat. As he sat down, an elderly woman sitting in the same pew leaned over to him and whispered, I dare you to do it again.
Well. Did the lady smile when she asked that? She knew (and so do we!) that “giving it all to God” means something different depending on how much “all” is.
Jesus loves rich people and Jesus loves poor people and desires that we all experience abundant life.
…Or does it?
“All” is a lot. It’s everything, in fact. The Kin-dom of God asks its members for everything: a whole-hearted commitment to the beloved and diverse community sharing God’s work in the world. There is nothing we have that doesn’t already belong to God; our hold on it should be light.
Money can be an especially alluring barrier, because you can do so much with it. With a certain level of wealth, we can insulate ourselves from some suffering and a whole lot of inconvenience, and we can purchase a certain amount of security in an insecure world. Money can buffer human vulnerability. It can increase a sense of independence that I can provide for myself and my own without relying on others for support or accountability. In the extreme, it can reduce feelings of gratitude by creating a narrative of the self-made human–by my hard work and extraordinary efforts I have constructed a very successful life.
Jesus recognized the danger of this perspective. Wealth can become a rival deity to the one true God, and a pitifully poor substitute for the real deal. But I think we miss the essential meaning of this text if we hear his words thundering down as judgment. Because there’s this: Jesus, looking at him, loved him. Now presumably Jesus loved everyone he encountered. But this is the only time it’s mentioned specifically. And I think that’s significant, both revealing Jesus’ motivation and the spiritual power available to do the impossible. Love, not condemnation, prompted Jesus’ suggestion. Compassion for this righteous man, and desire to help him fill the empty space that left him restlessly seeking more.
Look, friends, Jesus did not mandate wealth reduction for everyone who would follow him. Oh, getting involved with Jesus is definitely going to affect your attitude and practice around money. We find many examples in Jesus’ teaching about the importance of investing in the work of the Kin-dom. Remember the “wee little man” Zaccheus who had defrauded so many people through sneaky accounting? He used his money to make reparations for those he’d cheated. In the early church, the presumption around money was to share it, particularly with those in need; vulnerable children and widows and migrants. Our Matthew 25 initiative seeks to address these concerns. The Kin-dom of God is building community across all human conditions and all kinds of people. We’re in it together, or not at all.
But if the main message we take away from this text is a call to be more generous with the poor, then I think we’re missing some of its thrilling insight. Love is the heart of God’s kin-dom. Love is its goal, its vision and strategic plan. Love tears down walls that divide, cracks the shells behind which we hide, and opens us to our true humanity. Jesus loves us. Jesus loves rich people and Jesus loves poor people and desires that we all experience abundant life. The power of this text is to call us to that life. It is to choose the impossible way of centering God and God’s Kin-dom with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind. It is to go “all in”–letting nothing else hold a higher priority. For the man in our text, the thing he could not let go of were his many possessions. For others, it might be something else–maybe ego, or others’ expectations, or misplaced priorities, a skewed worldview, or fear… What stands between you and saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to come and follow?
Can’t imagine it? Then think again of the picture Jesus drew of a big-hoofed hairy old camel tipping his nose toward the tiny eye of a number 10 needle…for mortals it is impossible; for God all things are possible.
Thanks be to God! Amen.